The older we get the more knowledge we have absorbed, the more mistakes we can learn from and the more experience we can draw upon to frame our outlook on life. It follows that a person’s level of wisdom should advance at a similar rate to their chronological timeline. High levels of wisdom are associated with earned respect and often tied to a hefty amount of life experience. However, it is possible to accelerate one’s learning and development through study of ideas and the practice of mental discipline. To achieve sage-like qualities before your body becomes weakened and wearied by advancing old age is certainly desirable. The problem for many people today is that there are so many conflicting ideas available to us it is hard to select which body of knowledge to become an adherent of.
My own meanderings within the divine or metaphysical worlds have been constricted by taking certain wrong turnings and ending up at seeming dead ends. I misunderstood a passage in the brilliant book What the Buddha Taught ; whilst trying to implement the concept of ‘no-soul’ to my own life I damaged my sense of self. I was trapped by trying to believe there was absolutely nothing that constituted me. At that time in my life I was coming up against a lot of other ego’s (beginning University) and I struggled to map the ideas of non-existence onto this vibrant social milieu. The result was I didn’t flourish as much as I could have done, I was held back by choosing to believe in nothingness.
I encountered another spiritual conundrum when a little bit later in life, I tried to find myself through Christianity. This was the exact opposite and in some ways a reaction to the Buddhist ideas I had previously tried to embody. I attended church for a while, attempted prayer and took part in a cell group which met regularly to share our lives together. The community feel of that period in my life was warm and fulfilling but I just felt that it was all a social construct. People made such an effort with each other in the name of God and doing God’s work. They were honest and sincere, good to the core types of people, but I couldn’t tell if a combination of privilege and Christianity had made them that way or there was something more. I wondered what they would be like without the teachings of Jesus and the ‘presence’ of the Holy Spirit. My conclusion at the time was, they would be much the same.
It’s five years later and a lot has happened good and bad. I’ve slid into being some kind of agnostic. I accept that I don’t know enough to argue that there is no God or supreme being. Meanwhile, the two extremes which I dabbled in have shaped my current worldview and so I posit that if there is a supreme being, it is something elemental and forceful, not resembling human characteristics and having a benevolent personality. I don’t want to believe that the universe is entirely indifferent to human affairs (as I think that is bleak) so I have looked to find some source of ideas that are foreign enough to intrigue and excite me, but that I can somehow relate to. That’s where the ancient oriental book, the Tao Te Ching comes in.
The Tao Te Ching has been called ‘philosophical therapy’ (as oppose to the presentation of an actual theory) and this is the beauty of it. For me, taking lessons from the text is a more relaxed process than wading through philosophical concepts or learning to conduct religious rituals. It only takes an afternoon or even less to read the work but something about the text means it can resonate with any reader for much much longer. The words ‘Tao Te Ching’ themselves can be translated as The Classic of the Way’s Virtues or The Book of the Way of Virtue. The text makes frequent references to virtue as something to aspire to, but overall is about how to live according to the Way.
The Way is considered to be both the root and the sustenance of all things. It is something of an unknowable concept, at one point in the text we are told that people who know do not speak, and people who speak do not know. One of its many paradoxes. There is some sense of harking back to a time when society was different but I think following the Way relates to learning from the past. This is not traditional learning, it is learning through emptying the mind, learning to be at peace and harmony. This struck a chord with me recently. With so much going on in the world (the media saturation and daily bombardment by advertising) an empty or peaceful mind is something to be cherished.
There is also more harmony within the ideas put forward generally in the Tao Te Ching. Body and soul are not to be considered different entities but one and the same. This take on spirituality is appealing to me. I can consider myself more than the sum of the parts that constitute my body. I can think of my mind as more than just thoughts and memories generated by chemical reactions and bio-electrical impulses. At the same time there is a connection between myself and all things, what the Tao Te Ching refers to as ‘oneness’. Drawing on these ideas generates a sense of well-being, which combined with beneficial mental practices and a positive outlook on each day gives me a sense of empowerment.
My own experiences have taught me that spirituality is important, believing in something more than the physical is a powerful force. However, I also believe that the ideas of each religion are not for everyone. I realize a number of religions claim to be for everyone, but I just don’t think that there’s a ‘one size fits all’ for human beings. My point is not to argue with any of the organised religions but to state the case for developing a personal interest in spirituality. The latest development in my life in terms of spirituality is drawn from the ideas of Tao Te Ching. I encourage anyone to try out different philosophies and approaches to this exciting aspect of human life.